Dark Shadows is adapted from a daytime gothic television drama that ran from 1966-1971 and was revived on primetime in 1991. The show had a cult following and the the film is the result of years of attempts to reboot the series, including a 2004 TV pilot that did not get picked up. I have not seen either version of the series and thus cannot comment on the film's faithfulness to the source material, though I do know Burton's take has been controversial for some fans. The real problem isn't how much it does or does not depart from the original series, but that director Tim Burton utterly fails at finding the proper tone for this story. He alternates between campy horror and gothic romance, but is successful at neither.
In the late 1700's, Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) is a wealthy owner of Collinswood Manor in Collinsport, Maine. His playboy ways get him into trouble when he rejects Angelique Bouchard, a witch. She forces the love of his life to kill herself and turns him into a vampire. Then she rallies a town mob to capture him and have him buried underground. Two centuries later, construction workers find his tomb and inadvertently free him. Barnabas returns to his old manor and finds his family has fallen on hard times. The current Collins family consists of Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), her moody teenage daughter Carolyn (Chloe Moretz), and live in psychiatrist Julia (Helena Bonham Carter). Elizabeth's sketchy brother Roger (Johnny Lee Miller), and his troubled son David (Gully McGrath). He sets about to restore the honor of his family name, but finds life in the 1970's to be very confusing.
The opening scenes of the movie set in the 1700's are effectively stylish and spooky. Burton is obviously at home with creating a dark, gothic atmosphere. If the film has stayed true to this style throughout it may have worked. The problem comes when the film shifts forward to the 1970s and it attempts to blend in some wacky anachronistic humor. Unfortunately, the jokes are stale and unfunny (ex. Barnabas thinks a car is a demon, he thinks people are trapped inside the TV set.) Also problematic is a surprisingly lazy performance from Depp. He plays Barnabas as a clean shaven, vampire version of Jack Sparrow. It's a surprisingly uninspired performance from someone who is usually one of the more offbeat actors of his generation.
This also causes problems with the film's central romance. Barnabas immediately falls for Victoria (Bella Heathcoate), a young woman hired to take care of troubled young David and happens to bear striking similarities to Barnabas' love from the 1700's. Since Depp isn't really taking the role seriously, it's hard to care if he ends up with her. Also, Burton makes the puzzling decision to excise Victoria from much of the middle portion of the film, so there's no consistent build up to this pairing. Victoria is also a completely flat, one-dimensional character, the only reason Barnabas falls for her seems to be her looks as there is no chemistry at all. Many of the other actors in this film suffer the same problem, even the usually dynamic Helena Bonham Carter who is stuck with a character that goes nowhere.
The one performer who really stands out is Eva Green as the vengeful Angelique. Green embraces the villainous role and runs circles around everyone in the film. In fact, she has far more chemistry with Depp than Heathcoate does and I actually found myself rooting for her despite her obviously evil ways. If Burton has fully embraced the campy concept, then everyone could've taken Green's lead and we would've had a very fun film here. If he embraced the gothic suspense like in the early scenes, then it could've been a typically dark and spooky Burton classic. Since the film never figures out what it wants to do, we have a schizophrenic affair that never completely comes together aside from the electric scenes involving Eva Green.